This assessment of Trump’s North Korea policy is not necessarily typical in Washington, D.C., where many have chided the U.S. president for granting Kim Jong Un the stature of a summit, and proclaiming the meeting a sweeping success while extracting only vague commitments from Kim. But Cho, in an indication of how top South Korean officials are processing the latest developments, evaluates the situation differently. What’s important in his view isn’t only the technical questions of how and when North Korea’s “denuclearization” takes place, but also the political project of overhauling North Korea’s relations with South Korea and the United States. Looked at through that prism, the summit itself was a concrete achievement.
“Over the last 10 years, there was virtually no dialogue between South and North [Korea] and between the U.S. and North Korea,” Cho said. “Now we have established a solid platform for dialogue” at the highest levels, “which can lead to a desirable outcome. In that regard, I think the Singapore summit was a success.” (Or, as Donald Trump tweeted this week, “Many good conversations with North Korea-it is going well! In the meantime, no Rocket Launches or Nuclear Testing in 8 months.”)
To critics who might counter that the only thing patient talks with Pyongyang over the past two and a half decades has led to is a North Korea with a nearly full-fledged nuclear-weapons arsenal, Cho argued that this time may really be different, for three main reasons.
First, the leaders of North Korea, South Korea, and the United States “are all new players” in an old game, according to Cho. Kim Jong Un is a young leader who attended school in Switzerland. He has proven himself serious about not just building up his military, but also implementing economic reforms. Moon Jae In, the South Korean president, has a carefully crafted vision of how to engage Kim in concert with the U.S. and achieve “peaceful coexistence and coprosperity” between the two Koreas. Donald Trump made North Korea “one of the top priorities of his administration” and “successfully mobilized international pressure” against North Korea in regards to its nuclear activities, while nevertheless remaining open to dialogue.
Second, in becoming the first U.S. president to meet with North Korea’s leader, suspending U.S.–South Korea military exercises while diplomacy proceeds, and speaking positively in recent months about Kim and North Korea, Trump has taken a novel approach of seeking to build “new relations” and “goodwill” with North Korea, Cho said. North Korea, in turn, has shown goodwill by releasing American hostages, while South Korea has done the same by exploring projects to reconnect inter-Korean railroads and reforest North Korean mountains.
Since “the difficult goal of denuclearization will be impossible to achieve unless supported by mutual trust,” Cho explained, “the United States and North Korea will have to, first and foremost, work on building [a] new relationship with patience.” It’s not fair to expect U.S.–North Korea relations to advance as easily as inter-Korean relations because “the two Koreas used to be one nation for 13 centuries, whereas the United States and North Korea, for 70 years, haven’t had any relationship built on trust.”